The week before a bipartisan U.S. Senate deal reinvigorated hope that a gun safety legislation deal is possible to help halt the flow of illegal guns across state lines, institute red flag limitations as well as billions for mental health and school safety programs, among other moves to confront the epidemic of mass shootings in America, W-H School Committee members addressed how to reassure parents and the community about school safety in the district.
“Student safety has been a priority for me since I became an administrator,” Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said on Wednesday, June 8.
In 2014 the district adopted ALICE training protocols in the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn. Szymaniak was the trainer to teach district staff, along with school resource officers (SRO) Kevin Harrington of Whitman Police and William Frazier of Hanson Police.
“I have not kept up my certification as a trainer, but I still follow up,” he said.
As he spoke, members of Congress were negotiating gun safety measures after the Uvalde, Texas massacre in which 19 children and two teachers were murdered.
In addition to ALICE, the district is undergoing a process to ensure buildings are secured.
“We’ve already noticed two issues, one at Whitman Middle and one at Hanson Middle, that we need to improve upon in our secondary entrance,” Szymaniak said.
Elementary Schools have all been reconfigured so that, when people are buzzed in, they are in a vestibule and have to obtain entrance through another set of doors.
“We will be adding that [to the middle schools] this summer as a priority to make sure we have another layer of defense,” he said. “I’ve been in contact with both of our chiefs and we all agree that we are going to move forward with a safety/security audit this summer.”
Some consulting firms are already being talked to, Szymaniak said.
“We know our buildings do well, but we want an outside look at our protocols, our procedures, what we can do differently and I’d like to present that to you prior to the start of school, depending on how soon we can get this audit.”
A similar “soft look” before security changes had been made, was done after Sandy Hook.
When former Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Dr. Patrick Dillon was working in the district an evacuation plan was also created.
“Safety and security is on our plate – it’s never lost,” he said. “We didn’t lose it through Covid.” Another ALICE training had been done in that period with officer Harrington and new Hanson SRO Derek Harrington and staff.
Committee Chairman Christopher Howard, attending remotely, said the issue was one he and Szymaniak had specifically discussed adding to the meeting agenda.
They talked about setting up a night to conduct a forum that can allow every stakeholder in the district to have the opportunity to participate in that conversation.
“It shouldn’t be ‘This is what we are doing,’” Howard said. “It should be a ‘Tell us your thoughts, tell us your concerns,’ so that as Jeff goes forward we can roll that in. I’ve heard from a couple of parents on this specific topic [and] I’m guessing some of you have, as well.”
Howard said it was something on which they wanted to take the pulse of the committee before moving forward.
Member Fred Small said the district held such a forum three or four years ago that was well received and provided a lot of good information.
“What people are thinking. What’s on the horizon and, also some of the things that we’ve done,” he said could be touched on.
Vice Chair Christopher Scriven, conducting the meeting in Howard’s physical absence, said he thought it was a good idea.
“So many of us in the community – and rightly so – are concerned about this,” he said.
Member Hillary Kniffen, who teaches in another district, said is would also be important to hear from the people in the buildings with the students.
“I think the principals have a good idea, but really the people on the ground in the classrooms … would be really valuable and important,” she said.
“They certainly qualify as stakeholders,” Scriven said.
With a consensus from the committee that such a forum is a good idea, Szymaniak said they would discuss a target date some time this summer during the next meeting.